The Dada Antiwar Movement


On Fridays, Jane and I address questions from our SYMHC listeners. I've had an e-mail from Hannah tucked away, and I'm thrilled to finally respond. Hannah asked whether Dada was really an antiwar movement. There are dissertations about this topic, but I'll attempt to do it justice in 300 words.

In short, yes: Dada was an antiwar movement. Can art be created independently of the time and political, economic and social conditions in which it's conceived?

Smithsonian Magazine says that the word "Dada" can be translated as 'yes, yes' (Rumanian) 'rocking/hobby horse' (French) and loosely interpreted as "foolish naïveté" (German). The movement began in neutral Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire around 1916. According to the National Gallery of Art, this café was a haven for European artists. It was a safe place to respond to the seemingly nonsensical death toll that World War I was incurring. These responses varied from sound poetry recitations to performance pieces and exhibitions of sculpture and collage culled from everyday media.

Dada was a drastic departure from formal oil-on-canvas paintings. Artist Marcel Duchamp (noted for such works as "L.H.O.O.Q." and "The Fountain") found that traditional media and styles of art no longer sufficed: That art was "made for the eye, not the mind." One of the movement's forefathers, Hugo Ball, explained that Dada meant to wake up the people of the world who beheld "all this civilized carnage as a triumph of European intelligence."

Dadaists as well as their critics called the movement anti-art. To the untrained ear and eye, the movement may have been just sound and fury, but it was a serious criticism of the inefficacy of governmental and societal leaders. It aimed to jolt society into a realization that it lived in a grotesque and senseless way. So is Dada still relevant today?

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